“We were about three weeks away from delivering Parrtjima – A Festival in Light when the coronavirus restrictions came into play and due to the uncertainty we had no option but to cancel or postpone.” That was the state of play faced by Tim Watsford, CEO of Northern Territory Major Events Company, back in March.
Six months later and a reimagined Parrtjima – A Festival in Light has just wrapped this week in Alice Springs with what Watsford describes as “the best Parrtjima we have delivered yet” attracting more than 17,000 attendances over 10 nights.
So how did the team behind Parrtjima overcome all the challenges to host one of the nation’s most significant festivals during a pandemic?
“Because of the nature of the creative of this event our team that work on it are 100 per cent behind it,” said Anthony Bastic, CEO of AGB Events who deliver the festival. “They want to really ensure that it goes ahead.
“Everyone is so happy to be working on a live event. All the suppliers were saying whatever it takes we are in.”
Ultimately though the decision to proceed was governed by the local Arrernte people.
“They were very vigilant being one of the most vulnerable sectors of the community,” said Rhoda Roberts, First Nations Advisor for Parrtjima.
“We looked at what could happen and it was actually the custodians who came back and said they trusted us and knew we could do a Covid safe event.”
The NT’s very low rates of coronavirus and the team’s “good” relationship with NT Health made the task of adapting the festival to health and safety regulations a seamless one.
“We are at an advantage that Desert park is incredibly spaced out, with plenty of space for people to look at the installations in an outdoor environment,” said Watsford.
“There are some measures around queueing which is to the benefit of the event long term, as it does make you think how the operation of the event does work.”
The free program in the CBD’s Todd Mall precinct initially had a cap on numbers to ensure social distancing guidelines set out in the festival’s health plan but was moved to the larger Desert Park after being massively oversubscribed.
For the team at AGB, the new safety guidelines meant working “on a new narrative as to how could we continue to run this event safely”.
“We went through all of the segments of Parrtjima and deconstructed everything and then looked at ways to incorporate the regulations surrounding public gatherings of this nature,” said Bastic.
“I liked that we put our heads together to think up new ways – it breathes new life into events having to do these things. Adding new virtual elements and doing things differently really sharpens our skills.”
Roberts says the theme of this year’s festival ‘Lifting our spirits’ was chosen before the pandemic but resonates even more in the current environment.
“We wanted to lift the spirit of the local Arrernte but now it’s the perfect thematic for what’s been happening globally,” she said.
For Bastic, Parrtjima highlights the “need for people to come together again”.
“The First People of this nation are going to be the first event to come out of the coronavirus pandemic in Australia, which we thought was really significant,” he said.
Watsford says all the challenges presented by the pandemic have “changed the layout of the festival for the better”.
“Everyone has had a chance to review their operations and next year will only be a better experience again,” he said. “I think this is the best Parrtjima we have delivered yet.”
Parrtjima – A Festival in Light will return from 9-18 April 2021.